Monday, 15 September 2008

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What’s missing is communication, not information Once again it seems like there's no substitute for getting a mix of good people from different sectors together in a room around a common theme. With help from Tom Bolton at CABE and a few friends I pulled together a meeting yesterday to discuss neighbourhood communication. We had about 25 folk in the room and buzzy contributions were coming in from techies, academics, reps from third sector orgs, start-ups, community development, architects and others. What sparked it was a growing sense that the social potential of neighbourhood online networks is frustratingly unrealised - various DIY and off-the-shelf systems are around and awareness is increasing. But there's no sense that commercially-rewarding levels of activity are emerging in ways that will strengthen local social capital and community cohesion. Of course, it helps to have a knotty cross-sectoral problem to get into. I tried to capture some of it in a short issues paper here. Partly it's a problem of scale. Keith Hampton has been arguing for some years that in terms of developing local social ties, small-scale, around 150-200 units, is significant. But the commercial imperative requires a level of directory-type information provision and advertising, necessarily covering a broader area and over-stretching the principle of very local identity or neighbourhood coherence. So can these two scales be reconciled sustainably? And what about governance? We inhabit neighbourhoods that are wretchedly scarce of structured opportunities (and expectations) to contribute to local democracy. Top-down government initiatives heralded as promoting community empowerment are, understandably, treated with scepticism; but where are the models of locally-developed neighbourhood networks that include a layer of the most local governance? For instance, has anyone developed street rep arrangements underlaid with a simple effective online communication system? Shipley Streets Ahead dipped their toes in this a while back but seemed to withdraw nervously. I suspect partly it's because information, rather than communication, is still seen as the answer. (Or as James Halloran titled a seminal paper 25 years ago, information is the answer, but what is the question?) And at this point I have to add the proviso that this would mean properly accountable, locally-grown representative arrangements where residents define the role themselves: this should be obvious but sometimes isn't, which in itself is telling. Perhaps this is not just an opportunity for entrepreneurs but also a gap in the strategies of housing associations. This is very definitely work in progress but maybe the argument is something like this: for various reasons there is a crisis of local social connections which causes evident damage examples of local communication (post-its on windscreens, notes on lamp-posts, message graffiti and so on) point to the inadequacies of existing communication channels, especially in contexts of high mobility and the erosion of local life online networks can augment (not replace) other channels of communication and stimulate more interaction (I never understood why this should ever have been in doubt) we need to find out what research has been done and where the gaps are, showcase good...

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